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Enough to Make You Ill: 1.5 Millions New Yorkers Still Waiting for Sick Leave

Amy Traub

American workers should have paid sick leave,” announced the New York Times in a staff editorial on Sunday, “and New York City could set a standard for the rest of the nation.” With that, the nation’s newspaper of record waded into the long fight for what most Americans already say is a basic workplace right: the chance to recuperate from sickness without losing a day’s pay -- or worse yet, getting fired from your job.

July 18, 2012 New York women rally for paid sick days on the steps of City Hall

Those of us who have paid sick leave tend to take it for granted. Yet 40 million Americans, including two out of three low-wage workers in the U.S. -- the employees who can least afford to miss a paycheck -- do not have a single paid sick day to recover from illness or take care of sick child or relative. These workers must choose between losing a day’s pay or coming to work sick, endangering their own health and the public. Many low-wage workers even risk losing their jobs and health coverage if they call in sick. According to a University of Chicago survey, one in six Americans says that they or a family member have been fired, suspended, punished, or threatened by an employer for missing work due to illness.  The result is a more fearful and precarious low-wage labor force, just one illness away from slipping into poverty.

The solution is simple: at least 145 countries around the world provide employees with some guarantee of paid sick days for short or long-term illnesses. But while states and cities from Connecticut to Seattle and San Francisco to the District of Columbia have acted in recent years to secure a few days off for sick workers, the United States as a whole offers no such guarantee. The New York Times is right to observe that “the best way to address this workplace and public health problem is with a national law requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave.” But they are also correct that the Washington status quo makes progress unlikely in the near future. That’s where New York City comes in.

As a highly successful 2006 law in San Francisco has demonstrated, paid sick time can work at the municipal level.  That’s why ever since, a broad coalition of New Yorkers have been working for a paid sick time standard in New York City. Research has found that paid sick time in New York would not harm the economy or job growth, and would in fact save on health care costs, and benefit small businesses with less turnover and a more motivated workforce.  

The need and evidence of positive impact is so great that a veto-proof majority of 36 New York City council members support a proposed city law that already includes a number of compromises to accommodate business interests. Now the law faces just one roadblock: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has refused to bring the legislation to a vote.

The pressure is on. Thousands of New Yorkers have signed a petition appealing to Quinn to stop blocking the Paid Sick Time Act. And the Speaker is now engaged in what Demos fellow Sharon Lerner  has called “a feminist showdown,” a public face-off between Quinn, who hopes to become New York’s first female mayor, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who, along with some 200 other powerful women in politics, has called on Quinn to bring the bill to a vote. Steinem has announced that her support for Quinn –whom she personally introduced at a major fund-raiser last fall – is contingent upon Quinn’s support for paid sick days legislation.

New York has the chance to be a progressive leader, providing a critical benefit to 1.5 million working people who can’t afford to get sick, and helping to propel the entire nation in the right direction. Let’s get it right.